Roadmap to the Future | 5 Tips for Mapping Your Product Plan
Creating new software (or modernizing an existing one) requires thousands of decisions along the way. Trying to make this journey without a proper plan would be like taking a cross-country road trip without planning, using GPS, or even an old-fashioned paper map. How many mistakes would you make along the way? Would you get to your destination?
Without a plan, your journey would likely be beset by all manner of wrong turns, distractions, and visits to unintended places. You may even be misguided or taken advantage of by ill-informed or ill-intentioned people. That dream of a shiny new product could quickly become a nightmare, as resources drain away, leaving your travel log filled with lost time and opportunities.
This is a grim picture. You may think I’m being overly dramatic, but the IT world is filled with product junkyards; a landscape littered with unfulfilled promises and unrealized dreams. Without proper planning and a qualified team, the odds are uncomfortably high that your product will end up in this proverbial product junkyard. The larger the project, the greater the risk. Conversely, with a good plan and the right team, your odds of success go way up!
What is a Product Plan?
A product plan is a strategic document that maps out your new product, from vision to deployment, over time. The product plan should include a vision statement, your business strategy, the purpose of the product, the intended audience, and the value it adds, such as competitive differentiators. It may include some competitive analysis or market research, often found in a business plan.
The product plan includes the product’s functional requirements, as well as highlights the key functional components needed for a minimum viable product (MVP). It identifies “must-have” versus “wish-list” items and the priorities of each into phases, as part of the larger product timeline. The plan should also identify technology platforms and key architectural markers. For example, is it used internally or is it subscription-based (e.g.: Software as a Service or SaaS, etc.)?
In its essence, the product plan is a roadmap that helps to guide strategic decisions and plans for execution. It is a document that all stakeholders should align with before starting any development.
Top-Down Leadership: The Right Mentality
The value of proper planning simply cannot be overstated, especially in large and complex projects. This article is not an instruction guide on product planning. There are plenty of resources on road mapping concepts, methodologies, and tools. Rather, my focus here is on the “whys”, not the “how-to’s”, of product planning as well as the key business relationship with a technology partner.
Successful projects, at the most basic level, begin with the right mentality. Embarking on a software project can be like venturing into foreign lands; the more prepared you are the better. Good planning is something any business, large or small, should understand and care about. Planning is the best way to reduce risk and uncertainty and accomplish achievable, measurable goals.
You may be wondering … “why should I concern myself with this? I just delegate all this planning to my employees or consultants anyway. That’s what I pay them for!”
Indeed, product/project managers, IT Managers, architects, and developers are largely responsible for creating, validating, and implementing the plan. However, successful business leaders and product owners understand the value of getting involved early in the process when a top-down mentality is most important.
There’s significant value in engaging early in the planning stages. Engaging in creative visioning, road mapping, requirements gathering, key decision-making, and regular project check-ins will help ensure the project remains aligned with your business goals. Now, there are certainly times when being a hands-off boss is appropriate. You don’t want the team to feel micro-managed, but that’s not a good excuse for a lack of engagement in the project.
Product Planning – Mind the Gap
Every project can benefit from good planning. Naturally, as depth and complexity increase, planning becomes increasingly crucial. Big dreams often clash with poor execution, false starts, cost overruns, and outright failures. Why are these problems so prevalent in software development? There are several reasons why projects go sideways.
Here’s my Top 5 list of focus areas to keep in mind while putting together your product plan:
1.) Identify a Product Manager
A good product manager will keep front of mind where technology intersects with business. This is not the project manager, who runs the day-to-day of the project, but rather an individual focused on the overall vision. They understand that business analysis and strategy are critical to ensuring that the Right Solutions are developed for the Right Audience(s), in the Right Way.
The product manager is responsible for the roadmap. A roadmap is recommended for any type of software project, be it internal or customer-facing. The greater the size and complexity, the greater the need. A seasoned business analyst, product engineer, or product manager will expertly walk the line between the needs of the customers, the business, and its stakeholders.
2.) Avoid Shortcuts
As discussed, poor up-front planning is often to blame for poor product quality. It can have a ripple effect that leads to poor user experiences and back-end technical choices, from architecture, technology stack, programming quality, QA, and deployment.
Poor planning results in a lot of technical debt.
What is technical debt? Wikipedia defines it as “the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer.” For software development projects, this means avoiding shortcuts!
3.) Right-Size Your Budget
Proper estimating and budgeting are critical. If the developer’s estimate isn’t realistic or properly vetted, or if a client’s budget isn’t realistic – note that these often go together – problems tend to build slowly and accumulate over time, resulting in unmet expectations and an increasingly acrimonious relationship.
Developer bids can be deceiving (whether purposeful or unintentional), and “comparable” estimates can be surprisingly far apart. How does one reconcile conflicting bids? For starters, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. When it comes to product requirements and technical implementation details, take the time to get a clear picture up-front about what to expect.
4.) The Devil’s in the Details
Before tying the knot, you should take the time to understand the developer’s internal processes specifically, how they structure their software projects. Do they have a formal process in place? Can they explain it to you? Who’s your project manager (day-to-day contact)? Are they in the States? What’s the time difference? How well do they communicate in English?
Understand the pre-development process. What can you expect before they start coding? Is there road mapping, whiteboarding, storyboarding, UI/UX, and design collaboration? Are milestones agreed-upon? Do they encourage a client check-in and sign-off process? The bottom line is that you should feel that the developer has a solid process in place and is forthcoming and transparent about it.
Finally, when it comes to pricing, always compare hours estimates, not cost estimates. Any major discrepancy in hours should raise a red flag and prompt a deeper dive, as cost estimates are easier to fudge. Inaccurate or low-ball estimates can arise from a) different understandings of the requirements and complexities of a project; b) different approaches and technical toolsets; or c) lower-quality developers or an insufficient development team.
5.) Say No To “Yes-Men”
Poor planning can also result in having an imbalanced team or the wrong team for the job. A lack of creative collaboration and poor communication are telltale signs of an imbalanced team. Cross-team collaboration is the key to avoiding common software product missteps and pitfalls.
This can be caused by a disconnect between the client (or visionary) and their technical counterparts. Often, this can be traced back to a lack of up-front preparation, consultation, and planning – which could indicate a poor fit with the technology partner.
If a client is surrounded by “yes-men,” or the IT team is afraid to ruffle the client’s feathers, it can result in a creative vacuum, where team members are afraid to voice opinions or actively participate in creative brainstorming. A healthy team encourages all members to think outside the box and respectfully challenge assumptions. This helps avoid and address blind spots or inherent biases early in the process.
The planning process will include some or all of the following: requirements gathering sessions, existing system walk-throughs, client interviews, defining user personas and the user journey, etc. The consultant will help identify workflow bottlenecks and areas of opportunity. They should help to identify the different needs of various departments or stakeholders and use this to inform the roadmap and feature priorities.
IT Product Planning is Business Planning
Technology should never sit idle. Maintaining the status quo is not enough. Businesses of every stripe and size rely on technology. Even non-technical businesses can’t afford to sit on the sidelines while time and technology pass them by. At a minimum, every company needs software to effectively run internal sales, business development, and finance operations. Yet, many businesses still limp along, year after year with outdated or inefficient systems.
The roadmap is a great tool to help clarify your business goals as they align with your technology strategy. It provides a structure where plans are documented, evolved, and agreed upon. The plan also serves as a means for aligning the team on the vision and for holding them accountable. It helps to establish priorities and define milestones, which are key to managing budgets and/or investors.
If you’ve had bad experiences with software development in the past, this combination of pre-sales consulting, proper planning, and a reliable, professional technology partner will make all the difference. As you explore growth opportunities, you’ll need to tackle several thorny issues, which a good technology partner should help you navigate. These insider tips can help you avoid the worst IT mistakes and avoid your product becoming just another roadside casualty.
We Can Help
If you’re planning a new product or giving your current product a makeover, you’ll most likely need external help. Evaluating potential technology partners early in the process can help to forge a healthy, trusted relationship. To learn more about what to look for in this critical business relationship, keep an eye out for my follow-up article “Choosing the Right Technology Partner”.
Saritasa has deep experience helping companies build custom software solutions and evolve or replace their aging tools. Through a balanced process of consultation, collaboration, and cross-disciplinary IT expertise, we help our clients create everything from innovative, cutting-edge apps to professional-grade “run the business” workflow management systems.
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